Ravens vs. Steelers
MJD: This game is the reason that I hate making predictions. There's so much hatred, and the games between these teams are so close. It's like throwing 35 different explosive substances into a fireworks warehouse, then trying to predict what will happen when you drop in a match.
The best thing I have to rely on here is a hunch, and my hunch says this turns into a game unlike what everyone expects it to be. Everyone expects it to be close. I'm saying blowout. I'll go Steelers, 31-13. If you need me to justify that, here: The Steelers had a week off, their defense is more dominant than Baltimore's, and I still trust Roethlisberger way more than I trust Flacco.
But absolutely nothing would surprise me here.
Chris Chase: The return of bitter NFL rivalries has been my favorite part of the NFL season. Players never seem to care about hating division rivals like fans do. The world and the league are a smaller place now and all these players have crossed paths in high school all-star games and college and in the pros. They don't despise each other like they used to. It seemed like the days when George Allen could stand in the Redskins locker room and get his players to say things like "die you Dallas dogs" were long gone.
But the Ravens and Steelers are old school. They can't stand each other and it shows during their games. The hits are harder, the celebrations a little more animated. I love it.
It's an especially good rivalry because unlike whatever the Patriots and Jets have going on, there's a mutual respect between these teams. The Pats don't think they can lose on Sunday. The Steelers are well aware they can on Saturday.
I'm with MJD on this one though: expect the unexpected. Everyone is anticipating a taut, defensive battle, but I'm going with veritable offensive explosion (relatively so, of course). It'll be like the exact opposite of the BCS championship, except that a shady quarterback will be on the winning end of both. Steelers 30, Ravens 24.
Doug Farrar: Last year, I wrote that Steelers-Ravens has replaced Patriots-Colts as the NFL’s best rivalry, and the only people who believe that Patriots-Jets is somehow in the same ballpark need to put the last Baltimore-Pittsburgh games on a loop. It’s the football equivalent of two slightly different, but equally matched, twin brothers beating the crap out of each other three times a year.
It’s a very appealing series of matchups, as well – the highly underrated versatility of Ray Rice(notes) versus the Steelers’ league-best run defense; the pass rush of Baltimore versus Ben Roethlisberger’s(notes) absolute refusal to hit the turf unless there are more than four defenders on his back. Mike Wallace(notes) has replaced Santonio Holmes(notes) as the Steelers’ deep threat; now, he’s the league’s best in that same department. Ray Lewis(notes) is a bit tougher to replace. Still playing at a ridiculously high level after all these years, Lewis has a legitimate claim to the title of best linebacker the game has ever seen. Baltimore’s smash-mouth style against Pittsburgh’s undersold passing attack. Mike Tomlin against John Harbaugh. If you don’t like this, it’s safe to say that you dropped a football gene along the way somewhere.
In the third game between the two combatants, I expect the Steelers to pull it out by the usual field goal or less. Baltimore’s pass defense is still full of question marks, and somewhere in the fourth quarter, I expect Roethlisberger (perhaps with another ridiculously broken nose) to lead the drive that breaks Baltimore’s heart. Like him or not (and I lean toward the latter opinion for a host of reasons), it seems to be what the man was pre-engineered to do.
Packers vs. Falcons
Chris Chase: All of my thoughts about this game are captured in this 90-second rap song by B.O.B. about the game.
That's more cogent analysis than anything I expect out of Terry Bradshaw in the pregame. Bobby Ray hits on the three key questions: How will Aaron's aim be? How ready will Clay be? And will Matt Ryan(notes) be able to take that talon out of A.J. Hawk's(notes) hands? I'm worried that James Starks(notes) is a one-hit wonder and I'm tempted by Ryan's 19-2 home record in Atlanta. But I still like Green Bay (30-20), mainly because the Packers are holding the wild card.
Doug Farrar: The concern for the Falcons in this game should be that, according to Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics, their run defense has been the league’s least efficient in the season’s second half. This factoid leads me to believe that Packers running back James Starks could transcend his current one-game-wonder status, and put up some happy totals for the Packer faithful early on.
And if Aaron Rodgers(notes) now has the benefit of play action after playing at a ruthless level all through the regular season without any run game at all, the Packers become a team I’d bet to beat anyone but the New England Patriots. It’s all they’ve been missing all year. Their defense is ridiculous and Rodgers is one of the league’s best. You put a rushing attack in there against a team that has been playing not to lose a little too often, and I think we have an interesting little upset on our hands.
MJD: I see both of these teams as a little underrated; at least, as underrated as teams can be when they're both generally acknowledged as the two best teams in the conference. Anyway, I think they've both played Super Bowl-caliber football late in the season and are legitimate contenders to get the big silver trophy at the end.
I'm hesitantly going with Green Bay here, though. In the end, I think they've just got a liiiiiiiiittle bit more firepower on both sides of the ball, particularly if James Starks can turn in a repeat performance. I think the bigger factor here is that Green Bay is a little better equipped to slow down Atlanta's offense than vice versa. Packers, 27-14.